On the eighth anniversary of the shooting that nearly took her life, former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) on Tuesday returned to the U.S. Capitol to urge Congress to strengthen background check requirements for gun sales.
At a ceremony led by House Democrats, Giffords helped introduce a bill that would require federal background checks for nearly all firearm transactions, including private sales. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Rep. Mike Thompson (D-Calif.), the chairman of the House Gun Violence Prevention Task Force, were among the co-sponsors on hand to dedicate the bill, H.R. 8, in honor of Giffords and other victims of the 2011 mass shooting in Tucson, Arizona.
“Today for us is a day of grief ... but also a day of action,” said Pelosi. “We say enough is enough by finally bringing common-sense bipartisan background check legislation to the floor of the House.”
Thompson recalled the horrific reports members of Congress received on this day in 2011, before noting that Giffords’ former colleagues passed no new gun legislation in the years after.
“Since Gabby’s shooting, nearly 250,000 lives have been lost to gun violence, and over 800,000 Americans have been the victim of gun violence, all the time while Congress stood by and did nothing,” he said. “But today is a new day. Today, we have a new speaker, and today we have a new majority. And today, we’re going to take decisive action.”
“Stopping gun violence takes courage, the courage to do what’s right, the courage of new ideas.”
Under federal law, only licensed gun dealers must submit background checks to the FBI before a sale to ensure that the buyer is legally allowed to possess a firearm. H.R. 8 would extend that requirement to include transactions between individuals, thereby closing a loophole that has allowed many firearm sales at gun shows or facilitated online to take place without oversight. The new bill would exempt exchanges between family members and allow guns to be temporarily transferred for hunting.
Speaking Tuesday at the Capitol, Giffords lauded the bill’s sponsors for once again moving to expand the federal background check system, despite previous failures in Congress.
“Stopping gun violence takes courage, the courage to do what’s right, the courage of new ideas,” she said. “Now is the time to come together, be responsible ― Democrats, Republicans, everyone. We must never stop fighting. Fight, fight, fight. Be bold, be courageous. The nation’s counting on you.”
Giffords was just a week into her third term when a 22-year-old man opened fire at a constituent meet-and-greet, shooting the rising Democratic star in the head before turning the gun on attendees. Six people were killed, including a 9-year-old girl, a federal judge and a staffer for Giffords. Thirteen other people, including Giffords, were injured by gunfire. She retired from Congress in 2012 and, along with her husband, former NASA astronaut Mark Kelly, later formed a national gun violence prevention group that now carries her name.
She has spent the past six years campaigning for gun reform at the state and federal level. Universal background checks have been a key priority for gun safety organizations like hers and, apparently, the general public. Polling has suggested that as many as 97 percent of Americans ― including 97 percent of Republicans and 97 percent of gun owners ― support the move.
But Democrats have been unable to pass background check legislation to close this gap in federal law. Congress nearly passed a bipartisan proposal in 2013 after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, but the measure fell in the Senate.
With H.R. 8, the push for universal background checks will again have at least some Republican support. Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) is the lead GOP co-sponsor, alongside four other Republicans. He previously sponsored background check bills. Senate Democrats on Tuesday introduced their version of the legislation, though no Republicans have yet signed onto that effort.
Even with bipartisan support, H.R. 8 will likely face a tough road to passage. The 2018 midterm elections gave Democrats control of the House for the first time since 2010, thanks in part to victories by candidates who vowed to take action on gun reform. But Republicans still control the Senate and White House, and it seems unlikely that Senate Republicans or President Donald Trump, who claims to be a staunch pro-gun ally, would deliver a victory to Democrats.
A spokesperson for the National Rifle Association quickly denounced the proposal, calling it an effort to “score political points” and arguing that “so-called universal background checks will never be universal because criminals do not comply with the law.” If the past few decades are any indication, NRA opposition to the bill may doom its chances among many Republicans.
Gun safety groups say an expansion of the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), established in 1994 under the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, is long overdue. Since that law’s passage, background checks have blocked an estimated 3 million prohibited gun purchases, according to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. Under current regulations, as many as 1 in 5 firearm transfers takes place without a background check.
“We say enough is enough by finally bringing common-sense bipartisan background check legislation to the floor of the House.”
Earlier Tuesday, Giffords and her organization hosted a gathering at a Washington, D.C., hotel, where gun violence survivors, including victims of the Tucson shooting, discussed the path forward for the gun reform movement.
Mary Reed, a Tucson resident who now runs the TEDxTucson nonprofit, recalled being shot three times in 2011 while shielding her then-17-year-old daughter from gunfire.
Eight years later, Reed will be marking the day by urging Congress to pass the first substantive gun control legislation in nearly 25 years, when lawmakers passed a temporary ban on the manufacture and sale of certain semiautomatic firearms.
“This is the first Jan. 8 that I haven’t been in Tucson, and it’s the first time that I didn’t wake up in tears,” said Reed. “I believe the moment is right, but I will continue to work to change hearts, because people that have closed minds just have not had enough information, have not seen enough heartbreak, have not seen enough frightened, injured and dead children.”
To Reed, a gun owner raised in Texas, everyone should be able to agree on the need for universal background checks.
“When people see how easy it is to do a background check, it is not any more invasive than swiping your credit card and having your credit card [company] do a background check on you to make sure you can purchase what you’re trying to purchase,” she said.
That process is typically completed in five minutes or less, said Giffords.
“I don’t think this is pro-gun or anti-gun,” said Reed. “We all love our children. We have become a trauma nation, and I think that our voices are finally joining and [being heard].”